Plans to re-launch the town watch are underway. Reward money has also been set aside.
As Townsend’s population has grown so have the number of crimes being reported.
Reported crime within the Townsend town limits has almost doubled in the past four years, from 33 incidents in 2010, to 63 in 2013, according to Delaware State Police.
“Crime isn’t just happening in Townsend. It’s a city, municipal, state-wide, and even national problem,” said State Police Lt. Tom Paskevicius. “The key here is having the police and the community work together to combat it.”
While the incidents reported are low overall, residents and town officials are concerned. Recent vandalism at Townsend Town Park added to that concern. The worry has led to calls for more police presence, discussion of creating a police force and reviving the community watch that was started six years ago.
When the park was opened in 2009 no one expected that it would become the number one target of delinquency in the town.
“They smashed the gazebo; the wood was all broken,” said Townsend Councilwoman Lorraine Gorman, chair of the parks and recreation committee. “It’s all very, very upsetting to me.”
In addition to damage to the gazebo, which cost the town $1,130 to repair, there have been reports of graffiti, damage to playgrounds and the skate park.
The park, located on Edgar Road, cost over $1 million to build. The funds were a combination of municipal and state grants to provide residents with a place to gather for games, activities and exercise. The five-acre park boasts of a large skate park, three play areas, a pavilion, a gazebo, basketball court, baseball field, walking trail, and exercise kiosks. Almost all of them have been vandalized at some point and the problem has been getting worse, Gorman said.
“They took down one of the swings' seats and threw it over a fence; we found it months later. We ordered three more swings just in case,” said Gorman. “It’s costing the town a lot of money to fix things.”
In the last two town meetings, the vandalism happening at the park has been the subject of lengthy discussions between residents, Delaware State Police, and councilmembers over who is responsible and what the authorities are doing about it.
The problem at the park, however, is one example of criminal activity happening in town. The majority of offenses include, disturbing the peace, larceny and thefts, criminal trespass, and domestic violence, according to state police statistics.
Paskevicius said the statistics indicate that while crime may be increasing, residents also are also reporting incidents to police more than before.
Townsend’s town watch
Councilman John Ness, who heads the public safety committee in the town, said that crime statistics are reflective of his push for the past six years to get more community residents to report suspicious activity in the town.
“There is not a lot of crime in Townsend. There are just some incidents on occasion,” he said.
Still, increasing pressure from vocal residents at town meetings and concern shown by fellow councilmembers over the vandalizing at the park has moved Ness to revive the town watch that he started six years ago.
Town watches, also known as neighborhood watches, exist in many towns and cities across the country. They are made up of residents who organize to collectively patrol their streets, report suspicious activity to police, and look out for the safety of their neighbors.
About 20 million people in the country participate in town or neighborhood watches today, according to Michelle Boykins, senior director of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based, National Crime Prevention Council.
“These groups do make a difference. They allow for neighbors to come together and work with law enforcement to solve situations,” Boykins explained. “Residents become the eyes and ears of the community.”
This type of cooperation is what Ness expects from town watch volunteers.
“It’s not just about patrolling. It’s about getting people to report things. The more people report things, the more police can create a profile of what happened,” Ness said.
One of residents who attended the Aug. 6 town meeting, Michael Ruhmann, already volunteered to join the town watch. Ruhmann told the Transcript that he wants to do more than just file a report to the police.
“I want to have authorization from the town to approach someone. If I see a drug deal go down, I want to walk to the kids and ask them for their name,” said Ruhmann. “Calling the police and waiting two hours for them to get respond when I call is ridiculous.”
Boykins, however, discouraged town watch volunteers from confronting or even approaching suspects.
“Instead of approaching suspects, volunteers should note what a suspect is wearing or even if they have any tattoos. They should note the hair color, age, and any other information that can help police,” Boykins said. “That’s how you help law enforcement. You don’t want volunteers be in a dangerous situation. They should let trained law enforcement officers do their job.”
The question of a police force
Currently, Townsend contracts with Delaware State Police to patrol the town. The arrangement is that only a trooper who has signed up to work overtime serves the town at times requested by the council. Some residents have complained about the arrangement, including former town mayor John Hanlin who spoke up about it at the Aug. 6 council meeting.
“Are the troopers still on overtime?” Hanlin asked. “If no one signs up for overtime, we’re left high and dry. We need them patrolling, moving and showing their presence.”
Paskevicius, who was present at the meeting, addressed Hanlin’s concerns by stating that adding more patrols may be difficult since there may be as few as five patrols covering, “Odessa, all the way to Dover,” on any given day.
Still, the mayor and the council have assured residents that they can work with state police to improve patrolling on evenings and weekends, but provided no details.
Some residents at past council meetings have also brought up the idea of having a dedicated police force for the town.
“We’ve looked into having a part-time force, but the initial start-up cost might be $20,000 to $50,000,” Ness explained. “We could look into it more and do it in the near future.”
Currently, the town pays a state trooper working overtime, $68 per hour for 15 hours of patrolling a week, according to Ness. That’s roughly $53,000 a year.
For now, the only money that the mayor and council can re-allocate to combat crime and the vandalizing at the park is reward money. At the Aug. 20 town council meeting, the government body voted to set aside $1,000 from the general fund to pay monetary rewards of $250 to $500 to residents whose reports to police result in the arrest and prosecution of criminals.
“I don’t know what’s going on to that park, but it’s getting out of control,” said Townsend Mayor Jermaine Hatton at the last council meeting. “We have to do something to curb some of that.”